"I’m Not Interested in More Allies. I Need Advocates."

Michael J. Bobbitt and Raymond O. Caldwell in Conversation, Part I

Michael J. Bobbitt: In preparation for this conversation, I’ve been thinking about our meeting at the end of June. We both arrived ready to do a job, to have this HowlRound interview, and within seconds of seeing each other we changed the course.

Raymond O. Caldwell: I was so grateful you were there that day. I was going through it! Everybody keeps talking about wanting to have Black leaders in place, but what we’re not talking about is what it is to be a Black leader and how difficult that actually is. Being a Black leader, you are still entering and working in white spaces.

Michael: Yep.

Raymond: You don’t ever get to escape. Coming from Howard University, I became comfortable in a way. I forgot what it was to be in these types of spaces.

Michael: Throughout my years as artistic director at Adventure Theatre MTC in Maryland, I was a huge advocate for giving people of color opportunities to direct, design, write, and act, as well as to be on staff and on the board. I’ve become even more intentional about that and will continue to be in my new role as artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in the Boston area.

I went to a mostly white Jesuit high school and a mostly white college. And theatre is predominantly made up of white people. So the majority of my training was in whiter institutions. But, in the last few years, I have been finding myself needing and wanting to be in Black spaces more. A lot of the new friendships I have been cultivating have been with Black people. I’m drawn to that.

Some of it maybe has to do with the tremendous amount of race equity work I’ve been doing—seminars and workshops, and my own reading and YouTubing and listening to lectures. I’m feeling a bit more whole and connected. I always was, even before I knew scholarly and practical aspects of race equity work, somewhat because of my family but also somewhat because of the fact that, being a poor little Black kid in lower northwest DC, theatre saved me from a lot of struggles. I became a bit obsessed with making sure kids who look like me were in those rooms and getting a chance to experience art and theatre, because maybe they would be saved by it too.

Raymond: So much of my understanding of race—particularly race equity work—has been informed by my time as a director and lecturer at Howard. It’s a very different experience to be in an all-Black space. It gave my artistic aesthetic space to breathe, space to say yes. I got to see my ideas validated by other Black, brilliant minds. And to be in that type of Black space, particularly after spending six seasons at Arena Stage, and before that Ohio State and the University of Florida, all predominantly white institutions…

Working at Howard, I could breathe in a way that I could never before. Thinking about disparity was really interesting because although I was at the mecca of Black learning, the resources we actually had access to were few and far between. It was not actually comparable to the resources institutions that are literally a stone’s throw away have access too. When I think about the resources that Georgetown, George Washington University, American, Catholic—all these universities so close to us—the things those students have access to and the things my students did not have access to were shocking to me.

I have a lot of allies who have been in the room with me who hear racist things and who never step up to the plate.

Michael: Let's backtrack just for a minute. We set up to meet at Woolly Mammoth a couple months ago to have this conversation. The whole time I was headed down there, I was thinking, I am exhausted. I am full to the brim. I was onboarding at New Rep and I was closing things out at Adventure Theatre, plus dealing with life stuff—my Vietnamese adopted son’s high school graduation, a trip to Vietnam, packing my home for the move to Boston, saying goodbye to lots of people.

We met up and I said to you, “I’m really tired. I don’t necessarily feel like having an interview. How are you feeling?” And you said a similar thing, so I said, “Why don’t we just go have margaritas?” And we went to have margaritas. That moment was cathartic. It was needed. Not only did I feel safe, but it was healing. I was feeling guilt about leaving a community—not only Adventure Theatre, but the DC theatre scene, where I had some impact on the race equity work in the field. I was feeling guilt about abandoning all my people of color friends.

There were so many articles published when your appointment was announced as the new artistic director at Theater Alliance, in Washington, that mentioned you as the second Black leader of a professional theatre in DC, which was interesting because who’s deciding what’s professional?

Raymond: There are a number of companies that produce here in DC.

Michael: Yeah, and that have Black artistic directors. But to be counted the second by the press…

Raymond: I feel that pressure every day, and it’s indescribable. It keeps me up at night and it’s the first thing that wakes me up in the morning. There is this expectation, both spoken and unspoken, that is exhausting. I remember the day we met up being full to the brim, not only because I was taking over an organization but also my own guilt around leaving Howard University, which I still regularly have.

When you think about leaving a group of people you have been working with for so long, who you’ve built community with, who you dreamed with… That pressure is there, too.

Michael: And they’re organizations and communities that don’t have enough advocates for them. A whole lot of allies, though. I have a lot of allies who have been in the room with me who hear racist things and who never step up to the plate.

Raymond: Yep.

Raymond speaking to a group of people in a rehearsal room.

Raymond speaking at the first rehearsal for Notes on Notes of a Native Son at Mosaic Theatre Company in April 2019. Photo by Jez Kline.

Michael: I’m not interested in more allies. I need advocates. I need people who are active. As my announcement came out, and even towards the end of that, I often got notes, texts, emails, and Facebook messages from people of color going, “What are we going to do without you? We don’t have anyone helping us anymore.”

That pressure was huge. And then going into a new market where people of color are like, “You’re here! Yay! Fix all the problems. Make it better.” There’s that pressure, too.

Raymond: The thing that drew me to Theater Alliance was its focus on socially conscious, thought-provoking work. The pressure for me now, as a Black artistic director in a Black community, is serving my community first. While Theater Alliance is making great strides within Anacostia and Ward 8, there’s still so much work to do. I have to get to know the community and build for this community and also maintain the community that came with the company from Capitol Hill.

People of color immediately began reaching out to me after you left, like, “You are now the artistic director of color. What do we do? How do we mobilize?” There’s pressure to have those answers.

If we want to have relationships with people of color, we have to examine what is happening internally that may be contributing to the system of racism.

Michael: Not to mention pressure from other marginalized communities that want you to solve their concerns as well. At New Rep, we have in our strategic plan to expand audiences into more diverse communities. In my race equity work, and what I knew instinctually but didn’t know how to put into words until I did it, was the difference in a transactional relationship with people of color and a relationship that’s built on engagement.

Oftentimes the solution is to do a Black show or an Asian show or a Latinx show. And that’s not building a relationship. There’s always the concern about why those communities don’t come back to see other shows, why they don’t want to be on our boards, why they aren’t donors. I think it’s because those relationships are transactional.

I inherited this action step in our strategic plan, and I told the board, “We have to start with education first.” We all have to learn what this race equity work means. Because if we want to have relationships with people of color, we have to examine what is happening internally that may be contributing to the system of racism or not being inclusive, and we have to break that down so people of color feel safe to come in here and participate.

The Boston Globe’s article, announcing my appointment to New Rep was great, but it led with “diversity.” It’s even in the title. And then you go in to your new role feeling like a diversity hire, like you have to not only prove you were not a diversity hire but that you have intellect and leadership skills and experience. But everyone is looking at you to do diversity work first.

I said to my board and staff: “We will program diverse work, but our job is to build relationships.” There are a few processes and policies and actions we’re going to put in place, and one of those is race equity training for the board and staff. You can’t stay on this board and on this staff if you don’t go through this training, because I don’t want to be in front of a group of almost all white people and put myself in a very vulnerable situation and have people tell me that the things I want to do for the company are making them uncomfortable.

Michael standing at a podium and addresses a crowd.

Michael speaking at the reopening of Adventure Theatre in October 2018. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Raymond: When I announced my season, I had lots of other artistic directors, lots of folks in the community, say things to me like, “Oh, wow. What a brave season. What a bold season.” I purposely programmed three shows that focus on the Black experience in America. But in doing that, I am doing something a lot of companies aren’t thinking of doing. When we talk about our work in equity, I mean not centering the traumas of brown people, of marginalized communities.

Oftentimes the stories programmed are those of trauma. So the slot in the season that belongs to the marginalized group centers on their trauma and teaches a broader white community that this community is somehow traumatized or that they are the totality of their traumas.

Michael: American theatre makes a lot of money off of people of color’s trauma.

Raymond: And for some reason, white narratives get broader, more complex stories. I want to see a Black family drama that’s not centered on traumas in America. I’m focused this season on, How do I expand these conversations in the greater landscape of the theatre scene but also serve the community? In my community—Anacostia, Ward 8—I sit outside with my neighbors on the stoop regularly. The things that we talk about, the narratives that interest them, are the same ones that interest any theatregoer.

My staff and I have been working on asking ourselves, “How do we bring a community that has been long marginalized back into a space they have been disenfranchised from?” I love the focus on education, we are doing the same thing with our board and our staff. We’re expanding that into our community as well, imagining the ways this institution has disenfranchised people and how we can build programming or format our productions, so they actually break down the ways in which someone has been marginalized.

Michael: It’s a tremendous amount of work and I want to shout out to Seema Sueko, Arena Stage’s deputy artistic director, and what she taught me about consensus organizing, this audience development tool that builds mutual stake in the art and the community. We used that process for a show at Adventure Theatre, and it was fantastic in engaging the African American community. Many of the members of the consensus organizing committee are now on our board or being elected to the board. We’re going to be incorporating that for at least four of our shows here at New Rep.

Season planning is stressful for me—it’s the worst part of my job. I hate it with a passion! There are so many masters to answer to. You can’t just pick a season based on the playwrights you love. Will it sell tickets? Can you produce it? I don’t like it, but we have to do it. We have to curate a season that makes sense, that’s based on our own art, what the community will respond to, and where we want to advance the organization. But that comes along with looking at the bottom line, which sometimes goes against what you want to do artistically.

I’m walking into this organization with some debt and some financial strain and a lot of growth that needs to happen. I hope to get the following season settled by the end of this fall. I’m trying to figure out how to balance my art, the strategic goals of the company, and what I want to say to the community. It’s very, very stressful.

American theatre makes a lot of money off of people of color’s trauma.

Raymond: I love the consensus organizing work that Seema’s doing too. I learned about it from Mo Ryan at Ohio State University. Much of my season is built around that same model. Each of our shows is tied to community partnerships.

There’s this thing in the American theatre—particularly around socially conscious, thought-provoking work—where we all sit around afterwards, we pat ourselves gloriously on the back, and we’re like, we did the work. We talked about the issue or we saw the issue. And I’m like, meh. You talked about it. You saw it. But what are you doing about it?

Every culture, at its origin, came to the theatre to act. Not only to see a story, but to be so inspired by that story enough so that they would take ideas back into their society. Every single one of our shows at Theater Alliance this season is tied to a community partner who comes to our shows and participates. Every show has a post-show conversation and teaches our audiences how you get involved in the community if the issue speaks to them. So that people can actually put their money where their mouth is. In our race equity work, there’s a lot of talking but not a lot of acting on it. Our season is driven by action.

Michael: Allies versus advocates.

Raymond: The action matters to me. How are we moving this forward?

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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